Freedom and new mobilities in the 19th century


Deep-seated social, political, and economic upheavals would characterise the Caribbean of the 19th century. One needs to go back to the birth of the United States of America in 1782 to uncover the first major rupture in the European colonization of the Americas. As regards the region in question, it was the slave uprising of French Santo Domingo in 1791 that first signalled the shock of these events. The ideas of the Enlightenment that first infused the spirits and actions of the founding fathers of the United States Republic would be reinforced and radicalised by the French Revolution after 1789. In 1794, the Revolutionary Convention abolished slavery, which would only be re-established in 1802 in Guadeloupe. The Santo Domingo insurrection of 1804 would culminate in the birth of Haiti, the first black republic in history. Today, it is difficult to grasp the full importance of this event in the total span of American colonial history. It would be the Spanish continental Empire that would be the first to react.

Accordingly, it is important to quickly recap on these profound socio-political changes that spanned the first half of the century, before analysing the slow demise of Antillean sugar-based mercantilism, now progressively deprived of its slave labour, and confronted by the new industrial capitalism. Armed with its steam-powered engines, it would conquer the oceans and continents. The use of steam power in the mercantile marine, the railways and industry would transform the Caribbean as it did Europe, but in a manner very much linked to its long history of colonial servitude. 

1. Political liberation of the Spanish Empire

During the course of the first two decades of the century, Spain’s continental empire would free itself of its colonial tutelage, following harshly quelled revolts and countless battles. From this period would emerge men of state and war of whom Simon Bolivar was the most celebrated. The former empire would not retain its unitary structure during a century when nationalism was winning over the allegiance of peoples tied to various dynasties and feudal systems across the whole of Europe. Despite Bolivar’s efforts to create vast territories modelled on the United States of America, numerous states would emerge, their boundaries repeatedly contested, with their political stability remaining very fragile. This overall situation was exacerbated by the wettened appetites of the European powers, above all Britain and France. They would exploit the internal problems affecting the United States that prevented the latter from intervening more fully before the end of the Civil War (1865). As a consequence, France intervenes in Mexico which had lost 40% of its territory to New Spain in its war against the United States. Britain fastened onto Belize and British Honduras, thereby expropriating an almost continuous stretch of land along the Caribbean shore, from South Yucatan to the Rio San Juan delta, on the frontier with Costa Rica. Britain profited from the Bolivarian failure to unite Central America which broke up into five states, whilst the isthmus of Panama became part of Colombia having failed to integrate with Venezuela.

These newly created states denied the legal existence of all three Guyanas (French, British, and Dutch). The constantly disputed borders led to numerous conflicts from which military leaders profited by granting themselves power through force (“golpe”). Contrary to the basic principles that had guided the decolonization of the Spanish empire, a system of states run by dictatorial regimes neutralised parliaments where they existed, with opposition parties reduced to acquiescence, whilst at the same time not fully being able to impose the authority of the state over the whole national territory over the whole national territory over which “caudillism” reigned. The heads of the new states changed often, almost always through violence, so that each reign served only to consolidate a rigid plantocracy, coupling a section of the bourgeoisie, who had promoted decolonization, with the military clans who successively seized power. For foreign interests, it was easy to exert influence, as much over the economy as on the policies of these young and fragile states; and to set one against the other (see 2. Caribbean ambitions of the United States – Revolutions in energy and transport).

The Greater Antilles would achieve their independence later than the mainland. The Spanish part of Hispaniola experienced a very troubled relationship with the new Haitian State, which at several points attempted to place it under its tutelage. Freed from the colonial yoke in the middle of the century, it would like its neighbours later submit to North American ambitions. As for Cuba and Puerto Rico, they would represent the last two American colonial bastions to which Spain, weakened by its internal quarrels and economic decline, remained attached. These islands would break away from Spain only to come within the orbit of ‘Pax America’ at the end of the century. 

2. The very slow disappearance of slavery in the Antillean islands of Haiti and Cuba

2.1. A system that had run of out of breath?

The slave trade and the slavery of Africans would be contested from the very beginning of the 16th century: moral philosophers, members of the Catholic Church, representatives of Protestant churches condemned the morality of such practices. The weight of their argument would only increase over the coming centuries. At the same time, the slaves themselves rebelled and sought to escape their lot (see 2.3.1. On land: the dread of slaves fleeing – Mobilities of violent appropriation). The need to find new slaves increased their purchase price in the contested transactions held between official slave owners and privateers.

If western Europe was considerably enriched by this system, the same riches would help give birth to a new era: the Industrial Revolution in which Britain became the leading state. The invention of machines dependent on a new source of energy, coal-fired steam power, offered mankind new worlds to conquer. It revolutionised means of movement within a natural world from which man became better protected, or which he could contemplate its further modification. Machines would now replace human labour in many existing tasks whilst accomplishing new ones. Would they not even compete with slave labour?

As regards the sugar plantation system, mechanisation would often face much local resistance. The steam engine rendered the old sugar distilleries obsolete. The new power stations completely transformed the geography of the Antillean sugar industry. Large numbers of sugar distilleries disappeared because the new power stations demanded greater concentration of the cane fields close to which rail lines were installed for transporting the cane to the factory. From now on industrial capitalism attracted external funds replacing the increasingly inadequate sources of capital from the local plantocracy.

Accordingly, during this opening period of the 19th century, Antillean slavery was attacked from all sides, as well as internally from the constantly rejuvenated slave movements themselves, as well as externally from moral and religious pressures. In addition, new political events played their part (such as the French revolutions of 1789 and 1848), and the powerful economic interests undermining the whole practice simply because it was seen as a hindrance.

Britain took the lead in this campaign against the slave trade and slavery. The iron masters were irritated at the pressures from the West Indian lobby, in their attempts to guarantee price protection for Antillean sugar. The industrial capitalists were liberals seeking to lower the prices of foodstuffs, so as to keep the wages of their new industrial workforce as low as possible. Already, in control of the seaways, Britain abolished the maritime slave trade after 1815, then slavery in its colonies in 1833, harmonising these measures within a “trial period” of five years, viewed as one of transition so as to avoid the collapse of the plantation system.

West Indian sugar survived the abolition of the status of its workforce, either by introducing wages, or by calling for a new style of immigration (see below), but the old sugar islands of the Lesser Antilles would decline depending on the success of their integration within the new sugar market.1 The islands remaining Spanish had developed new plantation thanks to capital funding from the United States. So the Cuban sugar industry was able to develop a somewhat novel socio-economic structure. Its thermal power stations retained a slave workforce up to 1886, the official date of the abolition of slavery by Spain,2 more than 50 years after Britain and nearly 40 years after France (1848). Such staggered dates over this period reflect the respective hierarchical positions achieved by these three metropoles in the industrial revolution. The ending of Antillean slavery took more than 80 years, from the birth of Haiti to its abolition in Cuba. As for sugar, its production increasingly mechanised would change in scale. Whilst in 1890, Cuba alone produced more than a million tons, i.e. 10 times that of Santo Domingo in 1790 when the French colony was the largest producer. In just one century, the former so-called ‘spice’ had become a common food staple controlled by the new industrial capitalism. 

2.2. The mobility of the newly freed

In the West Indies, the newly liberated, black Africans benefitted in theory from a new freedom of movement. Their institutionalised incarceration had been abolished, but the employment offered in situ was very poorly remunerated: this newly waged labour force sought to establish a new life far removed from their former status. In the small sugar islands, available land was restricted (Antigua, Barbados, Saint Kitts, Martinique), and the ownership of land by black Africans remained illegal. Nevertheless, a few possible fronts, more or less legal, would open up on crown estates, in central Jamaica, in Guadeloupe (Grands Fonds), thereby expanding the cultivated area and giving priority to basic food needs, so neglected during colonization. 

2.3. The call for new immigrants: Indian indentured labour

To offset short falls in the recently liberated workforce, Britain and France organised the in-migration from India of indentured labour hired under contract on Trinidad, in Guyana, and especially Guadeloupe for France, whilst Dutch Suriname also received contingents of workers from the Indian sub-continent. In their tens of thousands, they arrived during the second half of the century. A certain number would not renew their contracts. They constituted a cheap workforce, housed in the old sugar plantation dwellings. Above all rural, they lived within their own self-contained communities, whilst the liberated black Africans strove to move into the urban centres. 

2.4. Intra-Caribbean migration and the attraction of the major building sites on the mainland

Anglo-Saxon economic tutelage (see 2. Caribbean ambitions of the United States – Revolutions in energy and transport) translated itself into the creation of vast plantations for banana, sugar cane and cocoa production across the scantly settled, humid coastal plains of the isthmus, of Colombia and Venezuela. These plantations, often in the hands of foreign companies, sought on a large scale to attract an anglophone and protestant Antillean workforce from within catholic and hispanophone states. The latter reinforced the enclave mentality of extraversion of these regions, and prolonged British influence along the isthmic coast.3 This coloured population would be confronted by the prejudices of a white Creole society that experienced massif European immigrant arrivals, settling above all in the valleys and on the interior plateaux. Thus a Costa Rican ruling of 1883 forbid the black African population from settling areas over 800 metres in altitude, thereby confining them to the coastal plains. It would be the same, whether or not legal, along the whole of the Caribbean mainland coast up until the middle of the 20th century with the growth of urbanisation.

The major infrastructural projects also necessitated plentiful labour. The trans-isthmic rail-links like that of Panama or the railways servicing the interior capital cities of Guatemala and of Costa Rica, represented arduous work, both dangerous and unhealthy. The most spectacular of these construction sites was that of the Panama Canal, with its two successive phases: French in the 1880s and American after 1900. Its construction necessitated tons of thousands of workers drawn above all from the islands of the West Indies.4 Death rates were high.5 It was during the American control of the site that Doctor Gorgas established scientifically a causal link between the presence of mosquitoes and that of the fevers.6 This imported worker population was based at Colon, a town which still retains the ethno-cultural traits that so clearly distinguishes it from the capital Panama.

The discovery of gold in the Guyanas (in particular French Guiana) at the end of the century also attracted influxes of immigrants coming mainly from the Lesser Antilles. Part of this population of Antillean origin,7 including the large majority of males, founded families in the area and thereby widened the ethno-cultural make-up of this Caribbean continental rim, at the very moment these same isthmic countries were attracting a strong European immigration. 

1 Sugar cane was also grown in the new tropical territories colonized in Africa and Asia. Moreover, the sugar extracted from sugar beet, using a technique developed in France during the blockade of mainland Europe, would become a not insignificant competitor on the European market.

2 The official ending of slavery was often merely the legalising of a situation already established in various places.

3 It was only in the final years of the century that Nicaragua truly conquered its eastern Caribbean region included in former British Honduras. During the time of the Civil War of the 1980s, this eastern region has still not been fully integrated!

4 An official report in 1886 on the state of the work site recorded the presence of around 13 000 workers of which more than 11 000 came from the British West Indies (9 000 from Jamaica, 1 344 from Barbados), 800 from Martinique, 400 from Colombia and Venezuela. Note also the presence of 6 000 Chinese, all in commerce.

5 The same report established a mortality rate of 6.4% amongst the 11 000 company employees (670 of which were Europeans), and that of 7.2% amongst the 13 000 construction workers.

6 His policy including the partial drainage of the marshes, his insistence constructing well-ventilated buildings, as well as the systematic use of mosquito spray would lower the mortality rates of this vast building site.

7 In contrast to this mobility on the past of Antilleans, a certain number of slaves would join their former masters who refused to accept the new social order. Accordingly, the British planters of the 13 colonies migrated to the Bahamas at the end of the 18th century. During the same period, the planters from Santo Domingo went to Cuba, others settled in Trinidad.

Author: Jean-Pierre Chardon
Translation:  : Louis Shurmer-Smith